Brazen Serpents, Brazen Sin, Brazen Grace

I’m so excited about the holidays! Cold weather, maybe snow, hot drinks and baked confections, a break from the normal routine, maybe getting to sleep in at some point…yep!  There’s plenty to love!

Of course, those aren’t the MAIN reasons I love the holidays.  Holidays are opportunities to reminisce, looking back on GOOD things. Thanksgiving is one of those specific times we intentionally pause to give thanks.  I find myself being thankful for my family, my health, a place I can call home that is happy and joy-filled.  I’m thankful for my wonderful job where I am privileged to pastor the greatest group of people on the planet as we are all discovering the treasures of Christ together on a great adventure. If these things are the earmark of wealth, I’m filthy rich!

Thanksgiving should lead us into the season of Advent; of expectation for the coming of Christ; a time filled with hope; joy; peace.  Yet, for most of us, Thanksgiving, in an ironic way, can lead us into a season of frustration with a lack of gratitude.

Of course, we’ve all seen this Facebook graphic:


Isn’t it such a dichotomy that in a culture where we have so much, we can hardly get around to enjoying any of our stuff because we are scheming ways to get more?  How easy it is to become dissatisfied with what we DO have, thinking it’s not enough.  And, our desire to be thankful is overshadowed by angst over what we do not have.

Add to this seasonal equation the millions of people  reminded of great loss during the holidays(family members, physical health, finances, jobs, homes), and Paul’s words to the Thessalonians become even harder to grasp:  “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”(1Th 5:18 NKJV)

How can I give thanks in everything when my culture is always reminding me of what I DON’T have?  How do I escape from the poisonous snake of thanklessness that seems to be nipping at my heels at every turn during the holidays?

Thousands of years ago, there was a group of people in the Middle East that also struggled with the snakebite of thanklessness.  Israel had been in slavery for 400 years when God sent a deliverer to bring them out of Egypt into the Wilderness to worship Him.  Their eventual destination was the Promised Land, a prosperous land that was promised to their forefather Abraham.  God used Moses to bring Israel out of slavery with many signs and wonders.  Israel watched the Red Sea part as they crossed over on dry land.  They watched as the Pharaoh and his armies were destroyed before their very eyes as the Red Sea swallowed them into a watery grave.  They journeyed to Mt. Sinai where they heard God’s voice, saw thunder, lightening, and smoke.  They watched as rivers of water flowed from dry rocks at Moses’ command to satisfy their thirst.  They collected manna 6 days a week to grind into flour to make bread.  They saw God’s glory in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading them on their way.  It was as if God had literally led them by the hand out of their bondage towards freedom.

But, when they arrived at the border of the Promised Land, they refused to enter the land.  They didn’t enter the land because they didn’t believe that God would help them take possession.  Even though He had practically carried them to the border.  They suffered the consequences of their own actions by having to wander in the wilderness for 40 years as an entire generation of complainers would have to die without inheriting the promise they refused to believe was theirs, and a new generation would be given the chance to inherit the Promised Land.

In Numbers 21, Israel neared the end of their 40-year sentence.  They had just spent 30 days mourning the death of Aaron their high priest, and now they were having to travel a longer way because the Edomites wouldn’t allow them to pass through their land.  And, yet again Israel complained.

Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For [there is] no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” – Num 21:4-5 NKJV

Israel was mad at God and Moses because they were no longer in slavery!  They were mad because they drank water from miraculous rivers in the desert and ate bread from the manna that fell from heaven!  They were mad because their clothes never wore out and their feet never swelled in their shoes.  Numbers 21 is one of the most blatant pictures of thanklessness in the scriptures.

Their lack of thanks brought judgment in the form of fiery serpents; poisonous snakes that bit the complaining Israelites, bringing burning, searing pain and death to many.  Israel confessed their sin of complaining and asked Moses to pray that God would take the serpents away from them.  But, God’s plan for relief didn’t include driving away the serpents.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery [serpent], and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” – Num 21:8 NKJV

God’s method of dealing with their sin was a metallic serpent lifted up on a pole, a reminder to all victims of the judgment they had brought upon themselves.  But, with that reminder was also the good news of a promise that if the victims would simply look they would live.  The cure would require faith in looking, not effort in spending time trying to drive out the snakes.  It would require them to believe that simply looking at that pole would bring healing. God didn’t drive the snakes away, but he did render their bite ineffective for those who would by faith look at the snake on the pole.

Moses’ instructions (my paraphrase): “Got a snake problem?  Look at the pole where brazen serpents and brazen sin are met with brazen grace.

Fast forward thousands of years later.  A prominent man among the Jews, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, came to see Jesus one evening, trying to figure out if Jesus was THE One they had been looking for, the Messiah.  And in the course of that conversation Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God; things Nicodemus didn’t understand. Jesus spoke of physical impossibilities, like being “born again.”  “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asked?  Jesus’ response:

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever BELIEVES in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.  FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON, THAT WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM SHOULD NOT PERISH BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE.” John 3:13 – 16 NKJV  (emphasis added)

Jesus took the story of the fiery serpent and revealed to Nicodemus that the story was about Him and God’s plan to cure the sin of the world.  Numbers 21 was setting the stage for a new Intercessor, better than Moses, that would intercede for the people, not just over a physical snake bite, but a spiritual snake bite.  Humanity’s problem was far worse than a physical snake bite; it was SIN.  And, the effects of our sin was not only torment, searing pain, and physical death, but also spiritual death.  The fiery serpent on the pole that was a vehicle for physical healing for the Israelites was a shadow of One who would come and be lifted up on a pole.  On that pole (the cross), Jesus would bear our sin and judgment, wearing them like a garment so that those bitten by the snakes of sin (all of us) could in faith turn to gaze upon the source of our pain: the ugliness of our rebellion and sin, and the judgment that was poured out without mercy.  Yet in that reminder was the Good News of a promise to be saved from destruction by faith.  All who by the faith turn in repentance to gaze upon the Son will find that the snakes have no effect; they will experience not only physical life, but EVERLASTING, ETERNAL, ABUNDANT LIFE.

In many ways, we still have to deal with snakes, and are tempted to complain; to gripe; to grumble.  But, the Good News is that the snake of thanklessness is ineffective against those who keep their eyes on the Son of Man, lifted up on the pole we call the cross.  If you have a problem with thanklessness, the cure is the same as every other sin:  Turn to the Son; look at the cross where brazen serpents and brazen sin were extinguished with brazen grace so that none have to perish but can receive everlasting life!

Prayers for a Happy Thanksgiving as we all remember the Son.


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